Expanding the Ranks of African-American CPAs

A report on the CPA Examination Summit

BY FRANK K. ROSS AND LESLIE TRAUB
February 1, 2008

  

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The National Association of Black Accountants (NABA) and the Howard University School of Business Center for Accounting Education (CAE) in June 2007 convened the CPA Examination Summit, a gathering designed to identify ways to fill the pipeline of future CPAs with African-American accountants who are ready and willing to sit for the CPA exam.

NABA and the CAE will convene a second summit in June at NABA’s annual convention in Atlanta, where the discussion will focus on identifying next steps and soliciting commitments from participants willing to take the lead in working toward the stated goals.

The CAE is sponsoring an academic study on barriers African Americans face to becoming CPAs. Results of that study are scheduled to be presented at the second summit.

Frank K. Ross, CPA, is a visiting professor of accounting at Howard University’s School of Business and is director of the school’s Center for Accounting Education. His e-mail address is f_ross@howard.edu. Leslie Traub is president and CEO of Cook Ross Inc. Her e-mail address is traub@cookross.com .

One of the great joys of being an accounting professor is hearing a former student say the following words: “I have passed all parts of the CPA exam.” That message is likewise heartening for CPAs in practice.

Encouraging more young people to become CPAs is crucial for the profession. A majority of CPA firms outside of sole practitioners identified finding qualified staff at all levels as a top concern in the 2007 AICPA Private Companies Practice Section’s Top Management of an Accounting Practice (MAP) Issues Survey . The AICPA has named people as a leading priority in its fiscal 2009–2011 strategic plan. The plan calls for leading the profession in embracing a changing work force environment by attracting, educating and nurturing CPAs throughout their careers and into retirement.

The National Association of Black Accountants (NABA) in 2007 launched “CPA Bound,” an advocacy initiative supported by the Howard University School of Business Center for Accounting Education (CAE). The program is designed to address one important segment of the CPA staffing challenge—the barriers to certification faced by African Americans.

One of the first steps in that initiative was a June 2007 gathering of thought leaders at a one-day summit designed to identify ways to fill the pipeline of future CPAs with African-American accountants who are ready and willing to sit for the exam. This article summarizes key recommendations that emerged from the discussions.

The ranks of African-American CPAs are small. According to an AICPA survey, African Americans comprised just 1% of CPAs employed by public accounting firms in 2004, the most recent year for which figures are available.

NABA’s own membership rolls reflect the need to grow the number of African Americans in the profession. NABA is perceived by many to be a leading organization for African-American financial executives, yet only approximately 23% of NABA’s professional members are CPAs.

The CPA exam summit—part of NABA’s annual conference in Philadelphia—drew approximately 45 participants representing public accounting, industry, academia, CPA exam preparation companies, state societies and professional associations. The participants spent the day identifying and prioritizing their concerns, regrets and best practices. A wide-ranging summary of the summit published by the CAE, “Insights Into Increasing the Number of African American CPAs,” is available on NABA’s Web site, www.nabainc.org.

Along with highlights from the summit discussion, this article includes some insights from the Center for Accounting Education’s third annual leadership skills development program, “We’re About Success!” The program, which drew more than 100 African Americans with nine months or less experience in public accounting, focused on developing skills necessary to be successful in the profession, as well as tools and skills needed to pass the CPA exam.

KEY IMPROVEMENTS—LOW HANGING FRUIT
Summit participants proposed many ideas, including some long-term efforts that require focus, resources, and accountability, and solutions that cross lines of responsibility between the groups represented at the meeting. The “low hanging fruit” that follows is within reach for many practitioners and other stakeholders:

1. Support new African-American hires in their efforts to pass the CPA exam by adopting the following best practices. The recommendations ideally would apply to all young accountants, regardless of race, but were specifically identified as ways to increase the numbers of African-American CPAs:

Discover what would motivate the young African-American accountants in your firm to take the exam and pass it within a certain time. If you are not part of Generation Y—by many definitions those born after 1977—don’t assume that what motivates you will motivate them. Use existing minority structures such as affinity groups and networks as a venue to identify motivational factors and to encourage African Americans to take the exam.

Incorporate certification as one performance measure in the annual employee evaluation process and aggressively monitor candidates’ progress. For employees who don’t take or pass the exam, discuss any hurdles standing in the way of the exam as part of their evaluation process.

Assign a CPA mentor for all new hires.

Offer to pay for CPA review courses as well as the fees for candidates to sit for the exam the first time they take it. Don’t wait for the employee to pass the exam before reimbursing the fees associated with pursuing the certification. While there is always risk associated with investing in an employee who may leave the firm after becoming a CPA, that risk is well worth the long-term benefits of a highly trained staff.

Give candidates time off to sit for the exam and include study time as part of the candidates’ work schedules.

Provide recognition for new CPAs.

Provide a bonus or pay increase if an employee becomes a CPA within a certain time after joining the firm.

Study the trends among candidates within your firm who graduate and pass the exam. Learn from their approaches, and disseminate what you learn among new hires.

Learn about your own biases and prejudices through diversity training and by building an inclusive corporate culture, and become aware of whether your own behavior could negatively affect the work and exam experience of African-American employees.

2. Increase the visibility and viability of the profession with younger generations by supporting outreach efforts in African-American communities. Encourage your successful African-American employees, specifically managers and partners, to become more visible and active with younger minority employees as well as in the recruiting and outreach processes.

3. Widen the marketing of the accounting profession among high school and college students in your community to drive home the message that a CPA is a board-certified professional like a doctor or an attorney.

4. Incorporate into all college and new employee orientations the message that an accountant’s education is not complete, nor is an accountant truly a “professional,” until he or she is properly credentialed, and that the CPA is the most important credential for an accountant.

5. Many companies, organizations and societies provide annual scholarships to African-American accounting students. These scholarships should incorporate the goal that the recipient agrees to take and pass the CPA exam within a certain time after graduation.

TAKING THE MESSAGE TO CAMPUS
When discussion shifted from what employers can do to how colleges and universities can encourage more African-American students and recent graduates to take the exam, summit participants recommended that accounting programs should make exam preparation a clear objective. Program leaders should consider incorporating CPA examination review courses into the curriculum as electives and encourage students to take the exam prior to graduation or immediately thereafter.

Not all accounting faculty are CPAs, nor should they be. The sense, however, among the summit participants was that if more faculty could speak from personal experience about the exam and the value of the CPA credential, they would reinforce the importance of sitting for the CPA exam and weave examples from the exam into classroom discussion.

NEXT STEPS
There was initial agreement among summit participants that their discussions represented the beginning of a long-term planning process that would involve and affect institutions, accounting firms, associations, societies and academia.

A reliable baseline must be established to measure progress, and a smaller, focused subgroup of the summit participants must continue to gather information, identify resources and establish accountability for moving forward on the broad scope of recommendations.

Summit participants recognized that NABA provides a structure for continuing the conversation. The President’s Advisory Council within NABA has been charged with studying issues raised by the 2007 summit. NABA and the CAE will convene a second summit in June at NABA’s annual convention in Atlanta, where the discussion will focus on identifying next steps and soliciting commitments from participants willing to take the lead in working toward the stated goals.

The CAE is sponsoring an academic study on barriers African Americans face to becoming CPAs. Results of that study are scheduled to be presented at the second summit.

It will take focused individual and collective efforts to increase the number of African-American CPAs. State societies and the AICPA can play a role by stressing the importance of the CPA credential, especially to targeted groups, and showcasing African Americans in leader-ship positions.

AICPA RESOURCES

JofA articles
Value Proposition,” June 07, page 82
Understanding the Best and Brightest,” Nov. 06, page 41
A History of Determination,” Oct. 05, page 71
African American Students and the CPA Exam,” May 05, page 60

Web sites
AICPA Minority Initiatives Committee, www.aicpa.org/members/div/career/mini/index.htm
AICPA Work/Life and Women’s Initiatives Committee, www.aicpa.org/Career+Development+and+Workplace+Issues/Women+in+the+Profession/
Young CPA Network, www.aicpa.org/YoungCPANetwork

OTHER RESOURCES

Web sites
The National Association of Black Accountants, www.nabainc.org
Howard University School of Business Center for Accounting Education, www.bschool.howard.edu/Programs/specialprograms/centerforaccountinged/CAE.htm
Diversity Section of the American Accounting Association, www.aaahq.org
Diversity Pipeline Alliance, www.diversitypipeline.org

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